How might Christians respond to violence and war? How do we understand Christ’s call to be peacemakers? How might we give voice and action to our vocation to peace?
These were theoretical questions for me until two years ago. But they gained urgency with the arrival of our first grandchild – female, Ojibwe and living on a First Nations reserve – born amid the upsurge in nuclear rhetoric between the United States and North Korea, and finding out that my own country was selling military equipment to Saudi Arabia. What sort of a world would she inherit? What could my single voice do to change any of this? These questions paralyzed me.
But reading Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and mystic, gave me hope. I found in his writings the ancient Christian wisdom of non-violence and peacemaking, restated in a modern key. Hope led to dreaming, and sharing those dreams led to collaborative action.
Our collective dreaming became Voices for Peace, a conference on peace held at the Cardinal Flahiff Centre in Toronto on April 28. The Church of the Redeemer, The Henri Nouwen Society, Citizens for Public Justice, and the Basilian Centre for Peace and Justice brought together a team of new and seasoned advocates for contemplative practices and active resistance. More than 125 people from across Ontario and as far away as Amsterdam and Los Angeles came to explore our Christian heritage of peacemaking, loving enemies, and non-violent resistance to evil.
There were two keynote speakers: Jim Forest and Shad Kabango. On the surface, it appeared an unlikely pairing – a 76-year-old writer and lifelong peace activist and a 35-year-old Juno award-winning hip hop artist and broadcaster. But their messages provided both counterpoint and harmony for the day.
Mr. Forest’s presentation focused not on theory but on the lived wisdom distilled from his friendships with Dorothy Day, Henri Nouwen, Daniel Berrigan and Thomas Merton. Each lived peacemaking in a different way. A fundamental principle for Mr. Forest is the need to disarm our own hearts, to bring into the light of day our own violent and aggressive tendencies, before attempting to disarm the hearts of our enemies. Compassion, love of enemies, and non-violent encounter were emphasized. We need first to see the humanity of our “enemy” because disarmament occurs not when we defeat our enemy in debate, but when we win their hearts.
Shad spoke on the intersection of art and peacemaking. He, too, emphasized the personal. Music and film are storytelling. Both arts offer deeply personal stories, but as they are offered those stories become social, assisting us in crossing our lines of human separation. Music maker at heart, he could not resist translating the fourth verse of “Remember to Remember” into spoken word poetry.
Newcomers to activism were able to take a small first step and sign a petition against nuclear weapons. Connections were made with Project Plowshares and Christian Peacemaker Teams. Books were purchased and friendships formed.
Voices for Peace closed with song and prayer. Music lifted to the heights of the chapel, perhaps to the heavens. As we sang, I realized I was finding my voice, and that we were finding our voices, for peace. And with the psalmist, “our sound has gone out into all lands/and their message to the ends of the earth.”
Paul Pynkoski is a member of Church of the Redeemer, Bloor Street, and was one of the organizers of Voices for Peace. He facilitates literature and film discussions at Church of the Redeemer’s drop-In program for those who are homeless or at risk. Jim Forest’s speech is available at http://jimandnancyforest.com/2018/04/becoming-peacemakers/ and Shad’s spoken word poetry is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_NBp2wwN5Is